Turkey’s NATO membership and S-400s

It might already be too late to expect that a heartfelt conversation that would open the door to more constructive relationships, particularly after Macron’s announcement that NATO is brain dead. If Trump wins a second term, this will only accelerate the process. And NATO allies like Turkey will not see much reason to curb their ambitions.

Last Friday, Turkey tested S-400 missile defense systems it purchased from Russia. On the same day, it signed a defense cooperation agreement with Ukraine. Not much has been announced about the details of that agreement. Although anticipated for some time, these two events are very much contradictory since these two nations are at war. Of course, there are many instances of one nation having relations they benefit from with two nations unfriendly to one other. What makes this coincidence, if you will, rather interesting is Turkey’s NATO membership and the whole resulting spectacle surrounding the S-400s.

Much has been said about the S-400 issue, its “whys” and “hows” and “what wills.” My point is that, aside from the particularities of this very large thorn in the side of Turkey-NATO relations, there is a fundamental and growing rift in how Turkey and other allies interact, or rather don’t interact, with one another. To very crudely summarize, it is mostly true that until the 1990s, Turkey was a dutiful and obedient NATO ally that served as a flank in the alliance’s posture against Russia.

The year is now 2020, however, and much has happened both internationally and in Turkey. There is now scant leadership and unity of purpose within NATO in regard to Russia or most anything else for that matter, which allows middle-tier powers within the alliance to be bolder. In Turkey’s case, a feeling of entitlement prevailed due to its special geopolitical position with its ensuing rights and duties. It has taken a progressively more independent approach, and at times a “having your cake and eating it too”-attitude as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has felt it has the means and the need to totally transform Turkish foreign and security policy, particularly as it has become a tool through which to manipulate domestic politics. 

To be fair, this has not come about in a vacuum. Grievances abound in Turkey’s relations with “the Western world,” from Cyprus to its never-ending to increasingly never-will-end EU accession adventure. Furthermore, NATO allies doing business on their own or with a coalition of the willing is not uncommon when their interests so require: just look at the U.S. in Iraq or France in Libya. Therefore, from Ankara’s perspective, the long-running debate on “who lost Turkey” is actually irrelevant.

On the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, it still says “Turkey has been a staunch Ally of NATO and considers the Alliance as the linchpin of the Transatlantic ties and Euro-Atlantic security.” Western European allies in particular might condemn and deplore Turkey’s actions for not being in line with alliance solidarity and responsibilities. However, in Turkey, both government and opposition politicians, and foreign and security officials too, genuinely feel Turkey’s positions and interests don’t receive the requisite respect and their recriminations almost always fall on deaf ears. In short, they feel Turkey is the one getting the short shrift when it comes to alliance solidarity.  

At this point in time, it might already be too late and too naive to expect that a heartfelt conversation among all concerned would open the door to more cooperative and constructive relationships, particularly after Macron’s announcement that NATO is brain dead. Alas, it seems all but certain that if it is to happen, a second Trump administration will only accelerate the process. Under such circumstances, allies like Turkey do not and will not see much reason to curb their ambitions, unless there is grown-up behaviour from allies that are more able to make themselves heard and taken seriously to ensure that NATO remains relevant to all members. This truly is no small feat, which might unfortunately mean more chaos ahead.


Dingin Deniz is a foreign and security policy professional.